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We're still in the dark over high-speed rail

Another day, another voice criticising the government’s plans for high-speed rail. This time it’s the National Audit Office, which argues the business case and the strategic reasons for developing HS2 haven’t been made clear enough.

Yesterday’s report concluded that the Department for Transport has put a high emphasis on the journey-time savings without clearly showing how this will benefit the economy, particularly outside of London.

The NAO also says it isn’t clear whether the business case presented so far includes the second phase of the scheme connecting Birmingham with Manchester and Leeds, which has a stronger but less certain economic case because designs are less well developed.

You don’t need to convince The Engineer that the plans for HS2 and the reasons for building it haven’t been laid out clearly enough – we’ve been saying so for a year. The NAO report really just underlines the point that what’s needed is more information.

Despite presenting itself in a defensive way (such is politics), the government in a sense agrees with this point. Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin released a statement saying the NAO’s argument ‘depends too much on out of date analysis and does not give due weight to the good progress that has been made since last year’.

The DfT told The Engineer a more advanced business case was already underway and would be finalised later this year. And it claimed the NAO had largely overlooked the case for the second phase of the project (it seems like everyone’s doing this).

In response, the NAO said its report was based on the latest available data, and at this point the whole thing threatened to descend into political squabbling.

The difficulty is that a project as huge, costly and time-consuming as HS2 is very difficult to effectively analyse. The latest consultations on the scheme will likely conclude before we’re able to see the latest data – which might help convince people of HS2’s benefits – but even once we have it, how much faith can we really place in it?

Take the argument that the construction of a high-speed rail network will reduce carbon emissions by encouraging people to take the train rather than fly or drive. As the IET’s transport policy adviser, Chris Richards, pointed out to me (and, indeed, people have been saying for years), it’s not actually clear high-speed rail travel would make substantial carbon savings.

Even if we shift to low-carbon electricity generation, HS2 trains will need much more energy than current ones to reach their high speeds. Plus, we don’t even know HS2 will encourage a significant number of people to drive or fly less given how much more expensive train travel already is and our inability to reliably predict future oil prices.

Similarly with the business case, conflicting information abounds on whether effectively bringing Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London closer together will help regenerate the North of England or suck more wealth and talent into the South, pulling investment away from smaller towns in the process.

Chris Richards, who added that the IET has long been highlighting the flaws in the government’s analysis, said the new report raised memories of a previous NAO study of HS1 (the Channel Tunnel rail link).

‘The original business case for HS1 included things like journey time savings but the report found the project cost exceeded the value of these time savings. Unfortunately for HS2, they’ve used exactly the same rationale. In 2026 we could suddenly turn around and find the project costs completely outweigh the benefits.’

The thing is we don’t now see HS1 as having been a big waste of money. Even if the line hasn’t lived up to all its expectations, we generally view the benefits of a direct high-speed connection to Europe as worthwhile.

So perhaps we need to start stripping away the tangential arguments and looking simply at what is the best way to match rail capacity to demand. We need to see HS2 as what it is: not a way to shave 20 minutes off a trip from London to Birmingham or a carbon-cutting measure but an attempt to improve the wider rail network and inject some international prestige into our infrastructure.

Many people, including the NAO, say the arguments for alternative options (another upgrade of the West Coast Mainline, for example) haven’t been properly explored. Engineers at the IET, IMechE and other organisations disagree. Ultimately it becomes a political decision based on how much the British public and business community want a big upgrade of the railways at a cost of £30bn.

Readers' comments (20)

  • Terence Mair and Jim White are quite right. May I add that it only needs a few corporate decisions in mainland Europe and London could be relegated to the backwater of the financial world. That would scupper once and for all the desire to go there.

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  • A fair chunk of the infrastructure cost could be available if the MoD shut down Vickers in Barrow and put the money to use for the British good.
    It is sad to see a nation which pioneered trains and built them worldwide now struggling to copy the Japanese
    As already mentioned it is better to examine alternative transport. It would also be quicker. AGV's could be on the market quite soon if HMG; Branson etc were sidelined.

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  • Another point regarding the design is that it is driven by the 'business case'. If the project is now deemed 'strategic national interest' (and let's face it the only money ever being made was in developments around stations) then 400kph can become the standard 300kph and the line can dodge a few ancient woods or even follow the M40 or M1

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  • Terence Mair's proposal should be given a thorough evaluation; perhaps a few percent of the money spent on HS2 would be sufficient to make a case for parliament! His argument is very persuasive to a non-railway engineer. In comparison to a road, most of the time any section of track is not being used - a gross underutilisation of a vast national asset. Light trains, using appropriate technology from the car, bus, aviation & mobile communication industries, could increase the utilisation considerably. Such trains could operate on more flexible schedules to suit demand. The need to change trains could be reduced significantly, or in many cases eliminated, inherently reducing the total time taken. From the point of view of a passenger, the service would also be inherently more reliable than a 2000 seater train. A broken down vehicle with only 8 or 12 passengers could be moved by the nearest vehicle available, all other vehicles would not be affected. The railway network could be opened up to genuinely competing operators. The method of operation could shift from what are in most case quasi monopolies to one focussed on customers. Taxpayers would not have to find £30BN, the operators would invest in relatively small & cheap vehicles which could be deployed & redeployed wherever the demand was greatest. It's time for the government to create the environment to let these ideas and business models compete instead of tying up customers & taxpayers with the consequences of mismanaged franchises.

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  • The only money to be made with HS2 was always in the developments around the stations - taxpayer builds a nice railway, private interests make the profits, such is life. However the important thing to remember is that the design of this railway has been driven by the (bogus) business case, hence we get 400kph, minimal stations, unachievable tph. If despite all the evidence that we should spend the money on something else the government insists on having the big shiny thing, they should at least reappraise this back to the 300kph so that it can follow a transport corridor and dodge around the ancient woods.

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  • I agree some of the comments here which indicate new technology is literally around the corner and this new line could be as relevant as a canal in 50 years time, however we are not Clairvoyant! It is clear to me the key criteria British Railways fall behind on (besides the absolutely shocking lack of responsibility shown by rail workers and contractors for basic housekeeping) is our inability to move ISO 6346 standard Intermodal containers due to platform width and bridge height restrictions. This has hamstrung British exports since the '60s (around the time the Beeching report shut all important branch lines instead of reversing state ownership). We need fast, links between our major hubs for exporting goods. HS2 is needed and I'm afraid the NIMBYs will have to make a sacrifice for the success of our country.

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  • Terence, it is obvious that no one has told you about the unions. We all know that trains could be split up into little units and run and two, three, four times the frequency if there were no drivers and also that driverless technology is well established, tried and tested in other countries. Train frequency is very important in overall journey times. I saw one of the railways programmes recently and noted with no surprise that the drivers are laughing their heads off.

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  • If there is an economic benefit wouldn't it be far better to start in the middle of the country and work out, to connect Glasgow or Edinburgh to Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham then continue to London as the later phase. Or perhaps we should all move to London then won't need any trains.

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  • Anyone Intelligent would always have a 'B' Plan, which might be just upgrading the old line, or a New Motorway?

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  • You state that "HS2 trains will need much more energy than current ones to reach their high speed" but total energy use is what matters. The X2000 tilting train set use 28% less energy per, while needing 32% less time despite an additional stop than conventional trains on the same Swedish line. In Spain, the Alvia and Talgo 200 increased average speed by 64% and 78% and reduced pantograph energy intake by 16 and 8% respectively when they switched from the old route to the new high speed one. Shorter use of auxiliaries such as air conditioning, less friction in curves and less braking on the new line more than compensated the aerodynamic drag. See "High speed, energy consumption and emissions" report on the UIC website.
    Virgin's Pendolinos could run faster while saving energy by switching from the curvy and congested WCML to a dedicated high speed line. The engineering challenge with 400 km/h HS2 operations will be noise, track and wire damage instead of energy consumption.

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